Calling governments to account

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (16) listens to speakers at a climate change...
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (16) listens to speakers at a climate change demonstration in Washington this week. Photo: Reuters
It is time to name and shame climate laggards, UN special envoy Luis Alfonso de Alba tells Mark Hertsgaard.

As world leaders converge on New York for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, they enter what may be the most consequential week in climate politics since Donald Trump's surprise election as president of the United States in 2016. Trump, of course, announced soon after taking office that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, the landmark treaty signed at the last big UN climate summit in 2015.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres convened this week's summit precisely because the US and most other countries remain far from honouring their Paris pledges to reduce heat-trapping emissions enough to prevent catastrophic climate disruption. The events of the coming days - including a global climate strike by activists overnight, whose protests in the past year have taken the term "climate emergency" mainstream - may help answer a question that has loomed over humanity since Trump's election: Can the rest of the world prevent climate breakdown if the richest nation on earth is pulling in the opposite direction?

The Paris Agreement stands as the strongest achievement of climate diplomacy since governments first debated the issue at the UN Earth Summit in 1992. The agreement obliged governments to keep temperature rise "well below" 2degC and, in a major victory for the most vulnerable countries, to strive for 1.5degC. That half-degree spells the difference between survival and catastrophe for low-lying coastal nations such as Bangladesh and island states such as the Maldives.

"Don't bring a speech, bring a plan!" For months now, that's what Secretary General Guterres has been telling heads of state and government. Guterres wants the summit to be where governments share concrete examples of how they are cutting emissions and boosting resilience to the climate impacts already unfolding.

Global emissions have continued to increase since 2015. On current trends, the earth is heading towards 3degC to 5degC of temperature rise - enough, scientists warn, to destroy civilization as we know it.

"The secretary general has very clearly demanded that all participants identify very concrete measures that can be implemented immediately," Luis Alfonso de Alba, Guterres' special envoy for the summit says.

"What we need is for all actors to put in practice their commitments [and to] recognise that whatever they had in mind before, they need to do much more - because climate change is running faster than we are, the situation is much more serious than we thought."

Asked how the world can meet the "well below 2degC" target when the current US Government is doing all it can to increase global warming, Alba, a career diplomat from Mexico, said what was needed was "higher political will not only in one country but in a number of them".

And indeed within the US, population centres such as California and New York have set themselves ambitious zero-carbon goals.

The climb remains very steep, however. Scientists with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared last October in their landmark "Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5degC" that humanity had to slash emissions by 45% by 2030, on the way to net-zero by 2050, to hit the 1.5degC target. Failure to do so would condemn many millions of people, particularly in poor and vulnerable countries, to destitution and death and make irreversible global warming more likely. Such dramatic emissions reductions, the scientists added, would require the transformation of the global energy, agricultural, transportation, and other sectors at a speed and scale without precedent in human history.

China, the other climate superpower along with the United States, will therefore have to do better as well. China won plaudits in the lead-up to the Paris summit in 2015 by closing many of its coal-fired power plants. But coal burning in China has recently crept back up, and Beijing has also financed construction of coal plants in other nations, particularly in support of its massive "Belt and Road" initiative to construct ports, railways, and other infrastructure across Asia to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Alba commends China for promising to go beyond the emissions reductions it pledged in Paris, but he adds, "We are asking them to do much more and in particular to green the Belt and Road initiative. It's quite important because of the scale of that initiative that they do not support coal plants but instead renewable energy."

When Secretary General Guterres gavels the summit's plenary session to order next week, the 12-year deadline outlined by the IPCC scientists will have shrunk closer to 11. Meanwhile, the burning of the Amazon, Hurricane Dorian's devastation of the Bahamas, this northern summer's heat waves across much of the hemisphere, and countless less-heralded disasters illustrate that climate disruption is no longer a future spectre but a punishing reality.

Alba nevertheless draws hope from the heightened public concern and activism against the climate threat. "Compared to 10 years ago, the level of public involvement is very different," Alba said, "and that's to a large extent because the news media is talking about it more and young activists are demanding action."

Guterres has gone out of his way to boost the visibility of climate youth, most notably Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who is the best-known face of the climate movement. Thunberg's "School Strike 4 Climate", begun a year ago in her hometown of Stockholm, spread like wildfire around the world, inspiring hundreds of thousands of students to skip classes and take to the streets to demand that governments, in Thunberg's words, "act like the house is on fire - because it is". Guterres has invited Thunberg to keynote a special one-day youth climate summit and address world leaders at the full summit's plenary session.

Alba recognises that the public is sometimes sceptical of UN conferences, and he acknowledges that the UN "does not have the means to enforce" the commitments made by governments in Paris. Instead, he puts his faith, again, in the ability of public pressure to compel governments to do the right thing.

"As in many other parts of international law," he says, "the enforcement rests in the follow-up and the `name and shame' role of civil society - to expose that a country is not complying with what they've committed to. The media plays an important role there, and so do activists."

Meanwhile, Alba's own teenage son has given him advice on how to make the case for action: Don't talk so much about the future that youth will inherit but rather about the climate disasters happening now.

"He had a point," says Alba. "This is an emergency we need to deal with today, not tomorrow. Talking about 2030 and 2050 is important because science gives us those dates for achieving certain objectives, but there's the danger that it tells people that we have time to make these changes. And that is a mistake."

This story originally appeared in The Nation. It is republished here as part of the Otago Daily Times' partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


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